Monday, February 20, 2012
How to animate a corpse
One of the downsides of being a philosopher is that it makes it harder to suspend disbelief when watching horror flicks. Plot holes become more glaring and speculations seem wilder when one’s business is looking for fallacies. On the other hand, there is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it; hence there’s no one better placed to find a way to make even the most preposterous yarn seem at least remotely plausible. A case in point, submitted for your approval: My take on a segment from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air.” (You can find it on Hulu and YouTube.) Watching it for the first time recently, I was annoyed by what at first seemed to me an obviously nonsensical twist ending. On further reflection, there is a way to make sense of it, if one makes the appropriate metaphysical assumptions.
The story, in the Night Gallery version, goes as follows. (You might want to watch it before reading further, if you don’t want it spoiled -- though perhaps you’ll be more likely to enjoy it after seeing how it might be made sense of.) In 1923, Dr. Juan Muñoz, an eccentric widowed physician, is visited in his apartment by Agatha Howard, the daughter of one of his former colleagues. The apartment, as she soon discovers, is kept uncomfortably cold by a refrigerating machine. Muñoz explains that he has a rare illness that makes it impossible for him to survive temperatures higher than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Agatha and Muñoz discuss the shared interest he and her late father had in conquering death. While the former had approached the subject through cellular research, Muñoz’s own approach tended toward the “mystic,” seeking the means of keeping death at bay in an act of will.
As their conversation continues, a mutual attraction develops, and since Muñoz cannot leave his apartment, Agatha begins to visit him regularly. When a heat wave strikes, she receives from him a frantic call for help, and she arrives at his apartment to find him draped in a sheet, peering out through the folds. Muñoz tells her that his refrigerating machine has broken down and must be repaired immediately if he is to survive. She is able to get a repairman to look at it, but he tells Muñoz that a needed part cannot be acquired until the next day, given the lateness of the hour. Agatha arranges to have hundreds of pounds of ice delivered to Muñoz’s apartment to keep him as cold as possible until the machine can be repaired.
The next morning, Agatha finds that Muñoz has only gotten worse and has locked himself in the bathroom, refusing to let her in. His voice weak, he reveals that his late wife had killed herself because she couldn’t bear to live with a corpse -- for he had, he says, actually died ten years ago and has ever since been desperately trying to keep his dead body from deteriorating. Agatha then hears him fall to the floor, forces the door open, and to her horror finds Muñoz’s motionless, rotted corpse staring up from the sheet. In an epilogue, we see Muñoz’s headstone, on which is inscribed the following:
End of story. Now, while it is of course in the nature of a fantasy tale to be fantastic, there should nevertheless be a logic to it -- a way of making the fantastic elements seem at least theoretically possible -- if the audience is to be able to suspend disbelief. This could involve the kind of scientific speculation that makes a good science fiction story work, or the application of some metaphysical or theological theses that have been worked out with some rigor in other contexts. (For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy, though obviously a work of imagination, is nevertheless grounded in a sophisticated system of metaphysics and theology -- a kind of hard SF for Thomists, you might say. Daniel Dennett’s short story “Where Am I?” is a recent example of a tale grounded not in empirical science but nevertheless in serious -- though in my view erroneous -- metaphysical speculation.)
At the very least, a good horror or fantasy tale should be grounded in folk ideas which, while perhaps having no serious philosophical articulation, have the weight of tradition or history behind them. Hence we are willing to overlook the implausible or unexplained aspects of stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, wizards, and the like, because while there seems little in the way of explanation of how such things could be possible (other than an appeal to magic, which is no explanation at all), the ideas are so longstanding that they derive a kind of honorary or “as if” plausibility merely from the fact of their familiarity.
The odd thing about “Cool Air” is that its fantastic element doesn’t obviously derive from any of these sources. To be sure, Lovecraft’s original story indicates a little more clearly that Muñoz’s preservation after death was made possible through a mixture of scientific and occult means, but these are kept extremely vague. Muñoz is not portrayed in either version as having been revivified through electricity (as in Frankenstein) or through witchcraft (as with zombies). More to the point, he doesn’t act like an ambulant corpse at all, but rather like a man whose body is decaying but still alive. What is never made clear is what his “death” years earlier could have amounted to if his consciousness and bodily activity carried on uninterrupted. Was it a matter of some of his crucial tissues and organs dying but the whole organism nevertheless carrying on through an act of will? That can’t be right, because it wouldn’t really be death but merely a bizarre illness, and the punch of the story depends on our finding out that Muñoz is really a corpse. But if he really had literally died years before -- the entire organism perishing, not just some organs -- how can it be that Muñoz carries on for years afterward? It would be one thing to say that he was gone, but that his body was kept animated through bizarre means, as with a zombie or Frankenstein monster. But the story has it that Muñoz himself carries on, desperately trying to keep his body from rotting even though he had died. And that doesn’t seem to make any sense.
Or at least it doesn’t, given certain metaphysical assumptions, particularly the ones I would bring to bring to bear. On an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic view of human nature, when the body dies, the person dies. A-T regards the soul as the form of the living body, the principle which is responsible for all of its characteristic activities, from the lowest vegetative functions to the highest, intellectual ones. For a human being to die is just for the matter of his body to lose this form or soul. The soul carries on, but not as a complete substance, and thus not as the complete person. More to the point, the body does not carry on at all; its matter takes on different forms -- of bone, meat, and the like, and of the chemicals that existed virtually in the body while it was alive. Certainly it loses the capacity to carry out the functions characteristic of human life -- walking about, engaging in intelligent conversation, etc. If what seemed to be a corpse was carrying out these activities, it would have to have the form of a thing capable of doing so, and thus would have a human soul and not really be a corpse at all. Hence, from an A-T point of view, the basic premise of “Cool Air” makes no sense. Muñoz is either dead or he isn’t. If he is, then there can be no question of him still walking around in his body, carrying out a conversation, etc. And if he is doing these things, then he isn’t really dead. Perhaps he had died and then been resurrected -- his soul coming once again to inform the matter of his body -- only with a body that immediately began to degenerate. But that’s not the same as being dead.
Hence my initial reaction to the story. Nor do I think that reaction is merely philosophically motivated. The A-T view regards itself as a theoretical articulation of common sense, and I think it pretty clearly tracks common sense in this case. Even apart from the metaphysical considerations, one wants to say at the end of the story: “Huh? If he really, literally died ten years ago, how has he been walking around and doing all this other stuff, uninterrupted, since then?”
But suppose instead that we took a Cartesian view of human nature. On that sort of view, soul and body are not two aspects of one substance, but rather two complete stand-alone substances in their own right. In particular, the soul is not the form of the body, and soul and body are thus not related (as they are for A-T) as formal cause and material cause respectively. The soul (or res cogitans -- a “thing that thinks,” as Descartes reconceived it) is rather an eccentric kind of efficient cause, a “ghost in the machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously put it. And the body is indeed a kind of machine on this view, capable in principle of behaving just as we are used to seeing it behave, but without any conscious or intellectual activity guiding it. (This is the source of the modern idea of a “zombie,” in the philosophical sense of that term, viz. a creature that is physically and behaviorally identical to a normal human being but is devoid of consciousness.) The death of the body is thus on the Cartesian view not the loss of a certain kind of form, but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown. Life and death thus have no essential connection to the presence or absence of the soul, because the soul is not conceived of in the first place as that which gives the body its distinctively organic characteristics.
Now the Cartesian view notoriously faces the “interaction problem,” the puzzle of explaining how a material substance (understood, for the Cartesian, as a substance whose essence is to be extended in space) and a res cogitans or thinking substance (understood as a substance whose essence is thought and nothing but thought, and is thus immaterial or non-extended) can get in any sort of efficient-causal contact. But however this is supposed to work, the causal relationship between the two turns out to be no more special then the causal relationship a res cogitans might have to any other material substance. Soul and body are not related, as they are for A-T, as form and matter -- two aspects of one thing, where for the soul to inform a body just is for that body to be alive. Think instead of a spirit possessing some inanimate object -- a ghost or demon causing a record player or television to switch on, or objects to move through the air as in movies like Poltergeist -- and you’ve got a model for how soul and body are related on the Cartesian view. Just as the poltergeist is a completely distinct thing from a physical object that it “haunts” or moves about, so too are a res cogitans and the body it is associated with completely independent. The record player a poltergeist flips on would have been just as it is even if the poltergeist had never done so, and the poltergeist could have flipped on something else instead. And the body a Cartesian res cogitans controls would have been exactly as it is even if it had been controlled instead by another res cogitans or by no res cogitans at all; while the res cogitans in turn could instead have controlled some other body, or some other kind of physical object altogether -- a record player, or even a corpse.
And that brings us back to “Cool Air.” If we take a Cartesian approach to human nature, then the story becomes intelligible. Muñoz’s death ten years before the story begins was the death of his body, and this involved, not the body’s loss of a certain kind of form (as it would on the A-T view) but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown. The death of the body would therefore not entail (as it would on the A-T view, where the soul is just the form of the body) that the soul, and therefore the person, was no longer present. Rather, we can imagine that Muñoz’s res cogitans continued to interact with his corpse just as it had been interacting with his body -- somehow pushing about bits of dead flesh just as it had previously been pushing about living flesh, or as a ghost or demon might push about the physical objects it moves around the room it is haunting. And just as a ghost or a demon’s possession of the corpse of a dog wouldn’t by itself keep that corpse from rotting, neither did Muñoz’s continued interaction with his now dead body keep it from rotting -- which is why he needed to keep it cold for as long as he could. For a soul in the A-T sense to animate a corpse would, as I have indicated, just be for that body to be resurrected or brought back to life. That a Cartesian res cogitans is interacting with a corpse doesn’t by itself accomplish that. But it does suffice to animate it in the looser sense of causing it to move about, to speak, and so forth. And that, it seems to me, is how we have to imagine Muñoz’s relation to his dead body if we are to make sense of the story.
Of course, as an A-T philosopher, I reject the Cartesian position. Indeed, for reasons set out in The Last Superstition, I regard it as philosophically disastrous. But let’s give it its due -- it comes in pretty handy when one is trying to relax, suspend disbelief, and enjoy an episode of Night Gallery.
(I spell out and defend the A-T hylemorphic view of human nature in chapter 8 of Philosophy of Mind and, more thoroughly, in chapter 4 of Aquinas. Earlier posts on A-T hylemorphism, Cartesian dualism, the interaction problem, and related matters can be found here. Apart from Night Gallery, Rod Serling is, of course, best known as the man behind The Twilight Zone, on which I’ve had occasion to comment before, here and here.)